Some time ago a British magazine was joking on the possibility that Italian men might spend more money on cosmetics than British women.
In an earlier post we had supposed a connection between artistic beauty and narcissism in Italian and Latin cultures.
Now an interesting passage from Jacob Burckhardt (1818 – 1897) on Italian outward refinement during the Renaissance.
“The outward appearance of men and women and the habits of daily life were more perfect, more beautiful, and more polished than among the other nations of Europe. The dwellings of the upper classes fall rather within the province of the history of art; but we may note how far the castle and the city mansion in Italy surpassed in comfort, order, and harmony the dwellings of the northern noble.
The style of dress varied so continually that it is impossible to make any complete comparison with the fashions of other countries, all the more because since the close of the fifteenth century imitations of the latter were frequent. The costumes of the time, as given us by the Italian painters, are the most convenient, and the most pleasing to the eye which were then to be found in Europe; but we cannot be sure if they represent the prevalent fashion, or if they are faithfully reproduced by the artist. It is nevertheless beyond a doubt that nowhere was so much importance attached to dress as in Italy.
The nation was, and is, vain; and even serious men among it looked on a handsome and becoming costume as an element in the perfection of the individual.
(…) We may note in particular the efforts of the women to alter their appearance by all the means which the toilette could afford. In no country of Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire was so much trouble taken to modify the face, the colour of the skin and the growth of the hair, as in Italy at this time.
(…) The use of perfumes went beyond all reasonable limits. They were applied to everything with which human beings came into contact. At festivals even the mules were treated with scents and ointments, and Pietro Aretino thanks Cosimo I for a perfumed roll of money.”
Note. Quote from Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, 1878. Available as Gutenberg text.
In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read an appreciation of Ernst Walser’s suggestion that, in order to better understand Italian Renaissance men, one should think of contemporary Italians (to a certain extent.)
We believe that, inversely, the same could be said of Italian Renaissance men. To better understand them one should think of the Ancients, namely the Greeks and the Romans (to a certain extent.)
OK. But don’t we have a greater distance between contemporary Italians and the Ancients?
We do. Nonetheless there are amazing continuities, and these only interest us. Which are these continuities?
An Army of Don Juans
Narrowing our focus on the themes discussed in Sex and the city (of Rome)1, 2, 3 and 4, we’ve just heard this sentence in a History Channel war documentary film:
The film referred to an Italian military expedition sent by Mussolini somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Now, I find this funny, and I am asking myself: is this the way many people from the English-speaking countries consider us? A bunch of Don Juans lol? I know it was perhaps a boutade but if this is even just partly true, what is the reason for that?
Other associations in fact arise.
Why Latin folks are considered sensual (or sensualists) by many people in the United States and in the UK?
Why Casanova was Italian and Don Juan Spanish? And why all American women went crazy for Elvis Presley (or even more for Rodolfo Valentino) who came from the south of the USA, an area marked by some Spanish & French influence ? Was it only because he was just handsome and his voice great?
Now the BIG question: is it possible we’re facing here some of those long-period permanences or survivals French historian Fernand Braudel built his historical method upon?
I mean, aren’t we dealing here with remnants of ‘alien’, pre-Christian, ways of living one’s sexuality?
Isn’t this what is so seductive, though felt as sinful and almost amoral, but, for this same reason, irresistible?
It is not our intent to exhaust (or to applaud) the phenomenon of Don Juanism, a complicated topic with a few unpleasant aspects (you might like this post on Julius Caesar’s Don Juanism). No self-indulgence here, pls, all we care about being the possible survivals of a far away past.
Let us thus continue with our associative questions.
How come the North Europeans who came down to Rome during the Renaissance were both spellbound and disgusted?
Is it because they perceived the Christian religion was not taken seriously by the Romans and by the Italians of that time?
Can’t it be this was due to the fact that most of these Northern people started to be really civilised only with the spread of Christianity, eg with Christianisation,while we were already civilised one thousand years earlier?
[highly civilized during ancient Roman times: Italian Renaissance didn’t come out of a desert, read a moving page here]
Can’t it be that they are the true Christians (culturally, at least, so no matter if believers or not) while in us paganism (and behaviours attached to it) has left some (or many) traces?
[ See an overview of the MoR’s blog main themes]
Can’t it be the reason (I am obsessive, I know) why the Christian religion was here felt mainly as a political thing, eg a way of governing the minds and the spirits of men, in ways not dissimilar to when ancient Rome was governor of nations?
Why our cardinals and even numerous Popes had lovers? Why the great Polish Pope (who surely had no lovers) was appreciated more by the big politicians of the planet (who flocked to his funeral) and less by the spiritual gurus of our time?
[Today the Vatican is perceived as a political – more than a spiritual – institution, I don’t have many doubts about it; even in Germany the Dalai Lama is more popular – 44% – than the German Pope Benedict XVI – 42% -, data emerged from a poll published by Der Spiegel in July 2007]
Why in the end many British and American historians, when discussing the Italian Renaissance, show(ed) until recently some kind of moral repulsion?
Let us therefore listen to the words of Preserved Smith, an American historian of the Middle Ages, who wrote the Renaissance entry in the 1956 edition of the Britannica:
“A succession of worldly pontiffs brought the Church into flagrant discord with the principles of Christianity. Steeped in pagan learning, desirous of imitating the manners of the ancients, thinking and feeling in harmony with Ovid and Theocritus, and, at the same time rendered cynical by the corruption of papal Rome, the [Italian] educated classes lost their grasp upon morality …”
“The Christian virtues were scorned by the foremost actors and the ablest thinkers of the time … The Church saw no danger in encouraging a pseudo-pagan ideal of life, violating its own principle of existence … and outraging Christendom openly by its acts and utterances.”
Italian society – Preserved Smith continues – was hardly aware that the New Learning it had mostly contributed to create had provoked “an intellectual force of stupendous magnitude and incalculable explosive power …”. His conclusion is beautiful (though tragic for us):
“Why should not [Italian] established institutions proceed upon the customary and convenient methods of routine, while the delights of existence were augmented, manners polished, arts developed and a golden age of epicurean ease made decent by a state religion which no one cared to break with because no one was left to regard it seriously? This was the attitude of the Italians when the Renaissance, which they had initiated as a thing of beauty, began to operate as a thing of power beyond the Alps”.
And in fact Italy was soon to be colonised by that same ‘power’ she had mostly contributed to bring into being.
[Speaking of paganism, Gramsci argues in that same Notebook IV: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony“]
So it seems we are often considered amoral and not true Christians. Are we amoral? Are we not true Christians? Are we decadent, rotten? Or maybe someone is simply not fully capable of understanding us?
Life with no Pang of Conscience
I will finish this draft conclusion of Sex and the city (of Rome) with this interesting passage written by a British historian, C. P. Rodocanachi (of Greek descent, probably), and dedicated to what he considers a potent factor of the Greek miracle (Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948).
This text sheds light in our view on the Greek mind and, to a certain extent, on the Roman mind, plus on some aspects of Italian Renaissance men as well:
Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit “of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city … They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart …”
“[They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin.”
“They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”
PS. I had to erase a few insulting comments to this post. They were written by some commentators from the UK. I ask for pardon if I have offended somebody, it was not my aim, really.
My style is sometimes aggressive but I am fond of the British people. I wouldn’t have toiled so much to learn their language decently enough.
The main idea behind this post is the fact (an historical fact, no doubt) that the people from the Italian peninsula (and elsewhere) were civilized long before Christianity arrived.
By civilization we refer to something distinguished from culture (see a discussionon it)for the reason of a higher level of complexity, a larger geographic locus, the presence of sophisticated urbanisation etc.
This fact, the existence of a pre-Christian high-level civilization – the Greco-Roman – may have engendered cultural differences (alive yet today) vis-a-vis cultures who mostly reached a ‘fully civilized’ stage together with (and thanks to) Christianity.
Such differences may regard survivals of the Roman religion in Italy and elsewhere – traces which scholars recognize and which Protestants, it is known, always tried to eradicate. They may also regard, why not, sexual behaviours as well.
Did scholars research on these difference? If so, how far they went? We do not know, our research on roman-ness being a knowledge journey.
See the comments area for further information.
As for the expansion of the Greco-Roman ‘civilization’ toward North-West Europe: